With more than 80 grape varieties planted and less than 25 years since its wine industry kicked into high gear, it’s too soon to anoint a signature grape for British Columbia’s wine regions. But early signs point to pinot noir as the frontrunner for red wine varieties.
Syrah and malbec from the Okanagan are attracting critical praise from local and international writers. Cabernet franc, merlot and blends of different cultivated varieties can also be strong suitors, but as the only red-wine grape planted in every growing region in the province, pinot noir is the best vehicle to display the diversity of styles and expressions British Columbia is capable of.
Pinot noir is widely found in the Okanagan, particularly in the northern regions of Kelowna and Okanagan Falls, where the variety was first backed by pioneers such as Blue Mountain Vineyard and Cellars, CedarCreek Estate Winery and Quails’ Gate Winery. It’s less common in the warmer sites in the southern Okanagan where more heat-tolerant varieties, such as syrah and malbec, have thrived.
In other regions, the early-ripening variety enjoys success in the Similkameen Valley as well as the Kootenays and Lillooet, and has taken root in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
While some celebrated vineyards were planted in the 1970s and 1980s, the majority of pinot noir vineyards in British Columbia are less than 20 years old. Many have been producing grapes for just over 10 years. The gradual embrace of the grape variety can be attributed, in part, to fashion; lighter styles of red wines weren’t in demand when the Okanagan wine scene started. It was the age of robust, full-bodied red wines from Australia and California, which Canadian producers hoped to compete against to attract consumers.
There was also the necessary research and development need to identify appropriate spots to successfully grow what is infamously lamented as “the heartbreak grape.” With thin skins that are more susceptible to rot and diseases, and notoriously low yields compared to other more fruitful varieties, pinot noir poses various challenges in the vineyard and winery that make it an expensive prospect for winemakers and consumers.
New approaches to winemaking in the cellar have led to significant advances for top-quality pinot noir around the province. Instead of using the same procedures they employ to make cabernet sauvignon, merlot or other red wines, winemakers now treat pinot differently, with more gentle processing and aging practices.
Greater know-how and consumer attention have come with the B.C. Pinot Noir Celebration, which launched in 2013. Thirteen wineries were part of the first edition. Last year’s meeting saw 36 producers come together for a day of educational seminars before a walk-around tasting and dinner at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan Campus.
David and Cynthia Enns, former owners of Laughing Stock, will breathe even more life into the scene with the launch of a small-batch pinot project. Having helped cement the reputation of Bordeaux-style red wines in the Okanagan with the critically acclaimed Portfolio and Blind Trust labels, the couple has focused exclusively on pinot noir grown in their home vineyard in Naramata for their 1 Mill Road brand, which makes its debut in June.
Whether they hail from Naramata, Kelowna or the Creston Valley, the best examples of pinot from British Columbia offer juicy and bright fruit flavours that contribute to a delicately sweet character. There are some shared traits with the concentrated and globally celebrated Sonoma Coast pinot style, but with more vibrancy and earthy complexity from the cooler growing conditions. Producers of note include Averill Creek and Unsworth on Vancouver Island and Blue Mountain, Howling Bluff and Spearhead in the Okanagan.
Here are some new and current releases to make the case for pinot noir as a delectable and compelling variety that shines brightly in British Columbia. They’re not cheap, but top-quality pinot noir never is.
CedarCreek Estate Winery Platinum Block 4 Pinot Noir 2016 (Canada)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $54.99
Block 4 is located on the upper slopes of the Home Block Vineyard that hugs the CedarCreek winery in Kelowna. There’s always a dramatic difference between this wine and one made from pinot vines planted lower down on the estate in Block 2. A pinot that boasts purity and elegance, structure and intensity, this is enjoyable now and promises to mature gracefully in bottle. Drink now to 2029. Available direct through cedarcreek.bc.ca.
Martin’s Lane Winery Simes Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 (Canada)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $100
Winemaker Shane Munn was recruited from his native New Zealand to take the reins at this no-expense-spared winery dedicated to producing the best possible pinot noirs from specific vineyards in the Okanagan. The combination of fruit from a cooler site in Kelowna and a warm growing season makes for one of the most upfront and accessible releases thus far from this ambitious Okanagan winery, which is striving to attract the attention of connoisseurs and collectors around the world. Available direct through martinslanewinery.com.
Meyer Pinot Noir 2018 (Canada)
SCORE: 90 PRICE $22.71
Okanagan veteran Chris Carson produced four expressive and smooth pinots from the 2018 vintage. The “Old Block” pinot strikes me as the most impressive – worthy of the $43.57 splurge in my estimation – but this entry-level bottling gets the nod for being truly enjoyable and well-priced. A combination of six different vineyards in the Okanagan, this shows terrific harmony between rich fruit and earthy notes. Drink now to 2024. Available direct at the above price through mfvwines.com, $22.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta.
Quails’ Gate Winery Richard’s Block Pinot Noir 2018 (Canada)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $64.99
Named for Richard (Dick) Stewart, the founder of Quails’ Gate winery who passed away earlier this month, Richard’s Block is a tribute to the man who helped introduce pinot noir to British Columbia when he planted vines in 1975. Some of the winery’s oldest vines are used to produce this pinot, which boasts winning complexity in the form of spicy and earthy notes. Drink now to 2028. The winery’s more affordable, entry-level pinot noir ($29.99 at the winery) is nice primer for the juicy and bright house style. Available direct through quailsgate.com.
Tantalus Vineyards Pinot Noir 2018 (Canada)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $30.44
Having cemented its reputation as one of the country’s top riesling producers, Tantalus has been making waves in pinot circles with consistently honest and impressive releases. The Kelowna winery’s three pinots from 2018, including an entry-level release made from young vines and a suitably impressive small-batch reserve bottling, are marked by surprisingly rich cores of fruit and long finishes. This flagship bottle sits confidently in between the two, with concentrated dark fruit and bold complexity. This needs time to really show its potential. Drink 2021 to 2030. Available direct through tantalus.ca.
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